Dr. Laura Bates had been told that maximum-security prisoner are beyond rehabilitation and Bates, an English professor and believer in the power of Shakespeare’s plays, took that as a challenge.
Bates holds classes in Shakespeare’s plays with prisoners who sign up to take the classes. She begins regular meetings in a detention ward with maximum security prisoners being held in solitary confinement with one of the most notorious inmates – Larry Newton who was sentenced to life without parole at age 17 for murder. What comes from the classes surprises Bates, who anticipated a struggle to get prisoners – many of whom had little education – to understand Shakespeare, much less discuss it intelligently. But what Bates (and most of us reading this book) forget is that this is, literally, a captive audience. These are men with nothing but time on their hands to think about what they are reading.
One of the surprises that comes through is how these men associate some of Shakespeare’s characters as imprisoned, usually by their own thoughts and deeds, much as these students are imprisoned physically. Clearly some of these insights can only come from someone who is incarcerated.
This is definitely an interesting read and for those who believe in the power of Shakespeare to speak about what it means to be human in a way that everyone can understand, this would seem to be more proof of just that. And what Newton and the other inmates have to say about Hamlet and Macbeth and the other characters and plays addressed truly is insightful, yet the book starts to grow repetitive and Bates appears to understand this and begins to add more personal information about how she came to begin this program, the dangers, and the rewards. This becomes more of a memoir than a Shakespeare study (note that the cover as depicted above reads “a memoir”) which is too bad because it’s the Shakespeare study that is most fascinating. The problem with most memoirs is that the memoirist remembers his or herself in the best of light.
I am glad that I read this and I will probably recommend this to friends who might find this sort of book interesting, but with a few caveats.
Looking for a good book? Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a fascinating look at the power of the Bard’s words, even to hardened criminals, but the memoir portion of the book surrounding the Shakespeare insight, pales slightly.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Shakespeare Saved My Life
author: Laura Bates
paperback, 291 pages